Hi-Yo Silverware, Away! Ricardo Spence, Super Busboy, Has the Wipe Stuff

updated 07/11/1988 at 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 07/11/1988 01:00AM

It's an ordinary night at the Country Kitchen restaurant in Las Vegas, which means that something not ordinary is about to happen. Ricardo Spence bursts through the swinging kitchen doors, a tray in his hand and determination in his heart. As he sprints to a six-seat table piled high with plates, glasses, gnawed ribs and congealing barbecue sauce, regular customers nudge their dining partners and begin a slow, numerical chant: "One, two, three..." Flames leap from Spence's fingertips—literally; we'll get back to that in a moment—as dinnerware, flatware and cold french fries fly off the table and into his waiting bus tray. "Nine, ten, eleven..." More customers take up the count, but Spence doesn't pause to listen. He reaches down to wipe a gob of butter from the floor, then snaps the red-and-white checked tablecloth into position. "Eighteen, nineteen, twenty..." In a final, sublime gesture, he tosses his tray into the air, catches it on his fingertips and races back to the kitchen. "Twenty-four!" shouts the crowd, breaking into applause.

It's all in a night's work for Ricardo "Flash" Spence, World's Fastest Busboy.

Granted, there is no National Busing Association—NBA?—to govern competing claims, and busing will not be even a demonstration sport in Seoul. "But people from all over the world come in and tell me I'm the fastest they've ever seen," says Spence, who studies busing the way Pete Rose studies baseball. A fast worker by nature, he realized shortly after taking the job two years ago that customers were watching him. Vegas being Vegas, and the Country Kitchen being located in the Paddlewheel Hotel and Casino, he decided to add a touch of showbiz. "At first it was like crash, crash, bang, bang," says Spence, 18. "I was throwing dishes into the tub. So I found a way to quiet it down a little bit. Then I figured out how to wipe fast but thoroughly. Then it came to the chairs. I would miss the chairs. I tightened that routine as well. Pretty soon it just came like magic." A magician taught him how to throw fire from his fingertips, which Spence now does "every 10th table or so. I'm trying to work in a couple of other things," he says, "maybe have a flower appear on the table after I've cleaned, if I have time."

Spence's act has become a Vegas draw—admittedly behind Newton and Sinatra, but a draw nonetheless. "I took over the restaurant operations two years ago and did a lot of redesigning to improve business," says Ramon Perez, 34, the hotel's food-and-beverage director. "Now I've got a busboy driving in the customers." A tough-but-fair taskmaster, Perez tries to balance the patrons' needs against the demands of youth and artistry. "He's a good kid, but I don't want him getting a swelled head," says Perez. "He's never dropped a plate, but he has accidentally flung food."

Cheerfully ambitious, Spence, who makes $6.50 an hour, has been bugging Perez to make him the hotel's banquet manager. "I told him no," says Perez. "He has to pay his dues one step at a time. But I'll tell you one thing," Perez adds, dropping his curmudgeonly facade for just an instant. "As I go up in this company, this kid is going with me."

—By Cutler Durkee, with Doug Lindeman in Las Vegas

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